But after both leaders used the New Year’s holiday to declare their willingness to meet again, a second summit may be in the works that could deliver real results – though they may look different from what Trump initially promised.
There was something different about Kim’s New Year’s address this year. Delivered from a leather armchair in what looked to be his library, it seemed designed to cast away old images of North Korea as a pariah state with an authoritarian leader at the helm. Instead of addressing a large crowd from a podium, a suited Kim spoke directly to the camera from a book-lined room.
The speech had more white doves than fire and fury, with Kim renewing his commitment to denuclearise the Korean Peninsula and saying that he was ready to meet Trump again “anytime” – even as he warned that Pyongyang may take an alternative path if US sanctions and pressure continued. In response, the US president welcomed on Twitter Kim’s promise not to make, use, test or sell any more nuclear weapons, expressing that he was also ready for a second meeting.
But missing from Trump’s tweet and embedded in Kim’s address were the same demands that have left both countries at a deadlock in nuclear negotiations – that the US lift sanctions, cease all joint military drills with South Korea and agree to an official end to the 1950-1953 Korean War – reminding the world that real progress on denuclearisation is still an elusive goal.
“Remember, despite all the meetings and negotiations since the beginning of 2018, North Korea has not yet made a single meaningful step toward denuclearisation,” said Ryu Yongwook, a professor of International Relations at the National University of Singapore.
North Korea’s long-term goals
A second summit is also unlikely to bring the results Trump once hoped for, since his original goal of removing all nuclear weapons from North Korea no longer seems to be on the table.
“[Kim’s] New Year’s Day address suggests that he is posturing for arms control talks, and not denuclearisation talks with Washington,” said Duyeon Kim, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and columnist for Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
What’s needed at this point, according to Duyeon Kim, is a “real nuclear deal”. Both countries need a plan outlining the “quid pro quo, with timetables” of denuclearisation and peace, she added. This would give some accountability to both sides and make sure the signposts of progress are clearly marked, so either side will know when the other is holding up their end of the bargain.
But it’s doubtful another meeting would rid the peninsula of nuclear weapons. Analysts say it’s likely that North Korea’s long-term goals, which extend past any one US administration, are to be recognised as a responsible nuclear-weapons state that will promise not to use or sell their arms.
And they may be willing to walk away from any talks that don’t offer this.
“If the US doesn’t give the North what they ultimately want and under their terms, then I imagine Pyongyang will continue perfecting its nuclear weapons technology and developing its economy,” said Duyeon Kim.
The Moon factor
The question then is what North Korea wants, and whether the US feels it’s in their interest to deliver.
Pyongyang’s “wish list” seems to include some form of sanctions relief, according to Professor Tai Wei Lim, a research fellow at Singapore’s East Asia Institute.
Kim is eager to improve the North’s ailing economy, which is suffering under US sanctions and shrank by 3.5 percent in 2017. One way Kim hopes to fix that is by “kickstarting” the country’s economy through cooperation and joint projects with South Korea.
Kim likely realises the need to act fast on this, while South Korean President Moon Jae-in is still in power. Moon has made a giant effort to bring North Korea out of its shell and into the international community, risking his own reputation to keep diplomacy alive. In September, Moon took South Korea‘s top business moguls with him to Pyongyang, a carrot to show Kim what’s possible if he cuts his nuclear programme. If a less sympathetic, more conservative South Korean president is elected in 2022, that door might close for another five years.
But North Korea has proven before that it is willing to throw away talks and take the hard road. In 2008, six-party talks involving China, the two Koreas, Japan, Russia and the US fell apart when North Korea declined to allow inspectors into the country.
With Beijing’s support, North Korea could be prepared to sit tight until the potency of US sanctions erodes over time.
Will they compromise?
For his part, Trump could be more interested in a compromise than he once was. A professor of international studies at Yonsei University in Seoul, who asked not to be named for his connection to the issue, believes the US is less concerned about North Korea’s nuclear weapons than some experts imagine.
“What they care about is missiles that can reach the US mainland,” the professor said. “If they remove the intercontinental launching abilities but [North Korea] keeps some of the weapons, I think that will be enough.”
Kim’s New Year’s speech appeared to show North Korea’s willingness to shed its image as a rogue state and join the international community. Under Moon’s guidance, Kim is eager to reform his country and its outdated economy – but only on his terms. For his part, Trump is equally eager to produce a tangible outcome with a second summit – but there seems to be little public appetite for a repeat of Singapore.
With Trump promising full denuclearisation and Kim clinging to a nuclear weapons programme long seen as a means to guarantee his country’s security, real progress will rely on both leaders’ willingness to compromise.